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Tuned In: Networks scramble to add minority characters

Wednesday, July 21, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Every year the networks film pilot episodes, or short presentations for new series. And every year the networks play a shell game afterwards, replacing actors here, rethinking characters there.

This year there's been more of that than usual, perhaps due in part to the uproar over the small number of minority characters in the original pilots.

"A lot of producers did some scrambling in the past few weeks," said Jonathan Prince, executive producer of UPN's interracial sitcom "Grown Ups." "That's OK, make 'em scramble."

Possibly the most obvious example of such rethinking can be found in The WB's "Safe Harbor," a family drama from the creator of "7th Heaven." Gregory Harrison plays a widower with two teen sons and a younger set of twins. At least, they used to be twins.

The twins have been recast as 12-year-old best friends who think of themselves as "cosmic twins" because they were born on the same day in the same town. And now one of them is played by an African-American actor.

ABC's "Wasteland" and "Then Came You" will get new black characters, as will Fox's "Manchester Prep."

Prince, who is white, said the lack of minorities on new shows probably developed during the casting process.

"When you write a script, unless you write the minority that the person is, it is assumed that person can or might be white," Prince said. "That's just a perception problem. If you say in the casting breakdown, this character is written colorblind, what you are saying is: Get me actors of every color. Bring us the best actors."

Prince's "Grown Ups" was originally written with a Jewish lead character named Ethan. Jaleel White, who played Steve Urkel for years on "Family Matters," was eventually cast and the role was reconceived.

"When it was read by all of us, it was decided at that point that the best person to play this was Jaleel White, who is not exactly a Jewish guy," said "Grown Ups" executive producer Al Haymon. "That is the template for how we operate, then these issues won't be issues, because the best person for the job will be working in that position."

Executives from The WB came prepared yesterday, announcing plans for a new series with Yvette Lee Bowser, creator of "Living Single" and "For Your Love." Bowser will develop a one-hour drama for next season titled "The Miseducation of Piper Fein." Bowser said the lead character, like herself, will be bi-racial.

"We're going to go out on a limb," Bowser said sarcastically.

Jamie Kellner, CEO of The WB, said the timing of the announcement was coincidental.

"We didn't just run out and make a deal with Yvette Lee Bowser," Kellner said. Bowser said the show has been in development for three years.

The WB also announced plans to do a series with Will Smith's company, Overbrook Entertainment, starring stand-up comic Nick Cannon ("Keenan & Kel," "All That").

WHERE 25 IS OVER-THE-HILL: In addition to the minority issue, age has become a major source of divisiveness in the industry.

"It's like when you're dating a woman and you're infatuated with her, and you'll see no other women before you," executive producer Prince said. "The networks are dating these teens and they've forgotten about [the rest of] us. We've reached a saturation point for teen shows. You can't have them on five or six channels."

But this fall, we do. NBC has the high school drama "Freaks and Geeks," Fox has "Manchester Prep," "Get Real," "Time of Your Life" and "Malcolm in the Middle." And the capital of teen TV, The WB, introduces "Roswell" and "Popular," plus the teen-skewing "Angel" and "Safe Harbor."

In "Assignment E! with Leeza Gibbons," airing at 8 p.m. Aug. 22 on E!, Gibbons explores the youth phenomenon infecting prime time. In a press conference last week, Gibbons said this obsession with youth will have a lasting cultural impact.

"A lot of us grew up with shows that featured mature people, programs like 'The Brady Bunch' or 'The Partridge Family,' that had a cross-section," Gibbons said. "Now we see young people who are in control of their lives and who have an awful lot of power. If parents are involved, they're either villainized or they're so dysfunctional that they're almost making a mockery of the whole thing."

Producers for The WB's teens-as-aliens fall drama "Roswell" said they intend to have parents in their show who will not come across as dim-wits or villains.

The WB has made no secret that its target audience is adults 18-34, but with so many shows about teens and twentysomethings (frequently in love, often living in a big city) isn't the network afraid of falling into the NBC trap that found that network's sitcoms all populated by women in Manhattan working for media outlets?

WB entertainment president Susanne Daniels said she doesn't think too many of the network's shows look alike.

"I think the shows will ultimately stand for themselves, but feel distinct to me," Daniels said. "They are frankly less similar to one another than some of the ensemble comedies you see on NBC and have seen for the last five years."

The WB's young viewers will make the final call on whether the network has gone overboard.

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